What if I Hadn’t Been There to Catch Them?
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What if I Hadn’t Been There to Catch Them?

Jan 30, 2024


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Modern Love

I never thought I’d be experiencing the heartache and joys of raising three small children, alone, at 62.

By Desiree Cooper

I yelled at the children to get into the car. Allie, 6, was taking her time, dragging her book bag. Jordan, 4, was whining for me to carry him. I had to yank Jax, 9, who had paused to write "ballz" on the dewy car with his index finger.

My grandchildren are my world. But at 62, I can't believe I’m raising them alone.

The youngest, Jordan, still has that preemie pallor. With big eyes and an impish smile, he's both a cuddler and a spitter. Out of the three grandchildren, he talks about his missing mommy the most. Maybe that's where the spitting comes from; inside that little body is the anger of a two-humped beast.

The night he realized my daughter wasn't coming to tuck him in, he started crying and wouldn't stop. I cuddled and kissed him, even as the others fell asleep in their sorrow. But not Jordan. He was furious and aggrieved. Born breech, he had never intended to leave his mother. His love for her was umbilical.

I tried cajoling with promises, bribing with sweets, barking commands. It ended with both of us sobbing.

I had only meant to safekeep them until my daughter and her husband could get back on their feet, but when they drifted deeper into instability, the children finally came to live with me.

That first night, I got up from the bed where the oldest two huddled like puppies and lifted the weeping toddler into my arms. Outside in the humid night, I strapped Jordan into the car seat and drove away into the darkness. At times he would stop crying, but just when I thought he had finally dozed off, he would start up again. It was 20 minutes before I realized he was fighting sleep because he thought I was taking him to his mother.

One morning, having gotten the children in the car for school and day care, I tried to open the door and realized that they had locked me out. I had started up my aging Honda on the driveway, wanting to ease them from their warm beds to warm seats, and they repaid me by barricading themselves in as I trailed behind with my travel mug.

I didn't want to rage outside where the neighbors could hear me. As they kept laughing, I tried not to cry. Eventually, they let me in, and my smoky gloom filled the car.

I am angry about being an old woman raising three little children. I am angry that I have to be up at 6 a.m. in the cold, unable to turn over and sleep another hour, even on weekends. I am angry when they’re mean and ungrateful.

"ZsaZsa, we’re sorry," Jax said. (I have forbidden them from calling me "grandma.")

Allie started sniveling with regret.

Jordan peeped, hypervigilant, from his car seat: "ZsaZsa, are you happy at us?"

At day care, I plucked Jordan from the car. Pretending to be chipper, I revved him up for the day ahead. He likes his class, but his only friend is Miss Amy. I delivered him in time for the morning circle, told him he was going to have a good day and slipped away.

When I got back into my car, I couldn't help but peer into the oversized, black SUV parked beside me, where a woman sat bowed behind the wheel with a new baby in her arms. She looked like a baby herself, her hair pulled back severely to show her fresh features and caramel skin. She was wearing Army fatigues.

The picture of sacrifice. This mother was spending the last tender moments of the morning holding her precious child close, a camouflaged Madonna in prayer. Was she about to be deployed?

I was mesmerized by this young mother sitting in the parking lot, unable to leave her child in someone else's arms.

I started to look for her every time I dropped off Jordan, wondering if she knew something. Maybe her child was born with a countdown — the soldier mother who knew just how much time she had, and that's why she was sitting so intensely every morning, holding, cradling, praying, humming.

She always took the closest spot to the door, parking her tank-like car where others must go around it. Everyone else was waving, yapping, herding children into day care. Even the whiny, sobbing children got shoveled inside.

On another morning, I had a Zoom call at 9 and wasn't ready. I had dropped off the other two children, but when I got to the day care, damn if there wasn't a line of cars. Had the entire city overslept?

When it was finally my turn, I pulled into the space beside the giant SUV. Yes, there she was, the soldier mother, coddling her treasure. Couldn't she see that we were all in a hurry? If she was going to have a prayer service every morning, why didn't she park to the side to free up the spot for those of us who have somewhere to be?

"Come on, Jordan," I said, picking him up because I didn't have time for his dawdling. I rolled my eyes at the soldier mother.

But of course, she didn't see me. She only had eyes for her baby.

After the daylight-saving time change, the children wouldn't get up. Just when I thought I had cracked the morning code, the game shifted. I let Jax skip brushing his teeth and let Allie wear her pajama top to school. Jordan had the surprised look of a clown shot from a cannon. I could barely function.

My nerves prickled when I again spied the monstrous SUV, the one that telegraphs "My cargo is more special than yours." My blood was coursing like lava, but I tried to ignore her. Just to prove I’m a good mother, too, I let Jordan wear a pink mask to school because pink is his favorite color. I prayed that other children hadn't learned how to be cruel yet. I kissed him and patted his butt as he took Miss Amy's hand.

But I couldn't stop the churning in my stomach. On my way out, I paused by the office. I needed to report the woman who parks her big car right at the door for God knows how long every morning, blocking access for the rest of us who need to get in and out. Shouldn't they at least pull her aside and tell her to be more considerate of others?

But no one was in the office. When I got to my car, the soldier mother was still sitting there, car running, babe in arms.

The rest of the week, I found myself lingering inside the day care after dropping off Jordan, reading the bulletin board, asking questions of the staff. It took me a while to realize that I was trying to run into her. I needed to hear the tenor of her voice, size her up.

But she has been trained to sense an enemy lying in wait. I left without an encounter.

At a recent drop-off, rain was coming down in horizontal sheets, and I cursed myself. The forecast had called for intermittent downpours, but I was in such a rush, I forgot Jordan's raincoat.

"It's crazy out here!" I said, a little worried about the lack of visibility, the loss of traction, the blurred white lines, the trucks bearing down on us. Please God, I prayed, don't let me have an accident with my sweet grandchild in the car.

"I love the rain," Jordan said, peering at the beads pummeling the window, "because I like rainbows."

When we got to day care, I pulled into the spot right in front of the door. I was jittery, the rain still gunning down. I couldn't move. Fears had been unleashed by the cloudburst: What will happen if I get too old to take care of everyone? What if I abandon them again by dying?

Jordan looked around, not sure what was happening. "Can I take off my seatbelt?" he said.

I took a deep breath. "Yes, but we’re not getting out yet."

He clambered into the front seat, and I cradled him close in our little foxhole. The cars behind me queued up as the parents waited for a spot to unload their children. But I couldn't move.

I love him so much; it feels like he's melded into my bones. Where would my little ones be if I hadn't been able to catch them?

Outside, the rain wasn't letting up.

"When can I go to Miss Amy?" Jordan said. But his body was snuggling closer as we withstood the battering rain.

"Let's just sit here a minute," I said, hunkering down. "Maybe if we wait long enough, everything will blow over."

Desiree Cooper, who lives in Chesapeake, Va., is the author of the children's book "Nothing Special."

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